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Disney+'s 'Obi-Wan Kenobi' struggles to live up to the storied legacy of 'Star Wars'

Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

(Be warned: The Force can't protect you from several spoilers in this story from the first two episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney+.)

Disney+'s Obi-Wan Kenobi is hobbled by the same challenge that faces any well-known prequel – including the three "prequel" Star Wars films that inspired this streaming series.

How do you keep up the suspense in a story, when the audience already pretty much knows how it ends?

Suspense too often deflated

Consider a scene early in the show's first two episodes, which dropped on Disney+ Friday. Our hero, Obi-Wan Kenobi – played by an impossibly youthful Ewan McGregor — has just been confronted by Owen Lars, the farmer who took in young Luke Skywalker as a baby at the end of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. (Fans know this guy is hiding the kid on the desert backwater planet Tatooine from his biological father, bad guy Darth Vader).

A group of bullies working for the evil Empire show up, looking for Kenobi. They are called the Sith Inquisitors – followers of The Force's dark side who hunt down and execute the galaxy's few remaining Jedi Knights. One of them – Moses Ingram's viciously cool inquisitor Reva Sevander — even cuts off the hand of a hapless old lady who dares complain.

But when Sevander threatens Owen's life and the lives of his family, promising to kill them all if the community doesn't reveal where Kenobi is, we know that's not going to happen. Because all those characters are alive in the very first Star Wars film, A New Hope, which features a more grown-up Luke teaming with a much older Obi-Wan. Suspense deflated.

This series should be a paradise for Star Wars fans; a previously untold story filled with characters from the films and opportunities to flesh out underserved plotlines.

But some of the same storytelling inconsistencies that made George Lucas's three prequel Star Wars films such a slog also weigh down Obi-Wan Kenobi — pulling viewers out of the narrative, just when they should be lost in a haze of nostalgia and sci-fi wonder.

Some of the mistakes are small. Kenobi has been hunted by the Sith Inquisitors for 10 years, but he has barely changed his appearance at all since the days of the last Star Wars movie his character appeared in, Revenge of the Sith (Watching the luminous McGregor as Kenobi, sitting on a transport trying to blend in with a bunch of laborers, you see the hazards of casting a movie star in a part like this.)

And there's a scene, played for laughs, where Kenobi seems to genuinely ask a young Princess Leia how old she is, even though he already knows because he helped hide her from her father – also Vader – in the first place. Sigh.

But other mistakes loom larger. The Sith Inquisitors smoke out a young Jedi hiding in a bar, but the group's leader, The Grand Inquisitor (played by an unrecognizable Rupert Friend, hidden under layers of makeup and menace), essentially stops Sevander from capturing him.

Even though he looks like he'd gleefully squash any being on Tatooine dumb enough to get in his way, The Grand Inquisitor constantly heckles Sevander for being too impulsive and harsh. That's despite the fact that her methods are the only ones which actually work, uncovering both the young Jedi and, eventually, Kenobi.

And don't get me started on how the Jedi Knights' robes, spirituality and lightsabers all feel like they were originally lifted from Asian culture without including many Asian characters. (George Lucas has acknowledged that the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress inspired many aspects in Star Wars.) That's a bit of whitewashing which has bedeviled the Star Wars franchise since its inception, and Obi-Wan Kenobi does little to counter it.

Rupert Friend as the Grand Inquisitor.
/ Disney+
Rupert Friend as the Grand Inquisitor.

Lots to love for 'Star Wars' fans

Which is a shame, because the first two episodes also reveal there is so much to love about this series, especially for Star Wars fans.

Ingram, woefully underused as the Black best friend in Netflix's The Queen's Gambit, really shines as the deadly Inquisitor Reva Sevander, also known as The Third Sister. Vivien Lyra Blair practically channels Carrie Fisher's subversive, wisecracking spirit, even as a 10-year-old Princess Leia.

And it is a treat to see Kumail Nanjiani pop up as a street wise con man. (Another bit of stunt casting, using the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea as a thuggish kidnapper, didn't work quite so well.)

Of course, the special effects here are wonderful, re-creating the world of Star Wars with additional detail and flair.

But none of that fully compensates for a series that feels a little too undercooked and lightweight for the legacy it is trying to uphold. Star Wars fans may still fall in love with a show that returns to a beloved fictional universe to tell an exciting new chapter.

But I couldn't help but wonder how much better Obi-Wan Kenobi would be if producers had worked a little harder to surprise us while filling in the gaps of a legendary story.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.